Anyone who has read Jenny Lawson’s work knows that the 47-year-old writer suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Once, it made her finger swell up like a Ball Park hot dog. Another time, her ankle got so big that it looked as if she were wearing a “single nude leg-warmer stuffed with apples.” Often, flare-ups leave her bedridden or send her rushing to the emergency room; she has joked that she wishes the condition had a sexier name, like “the Midnight Death” or “Impending Vampirism.” It is a painful, incurable autoimmune disorder that affects everything from her shoe size (it fluctuates) to the way she experiences rain (her symptoms worsen). It is also the reason an in-person interview during the eleventh month of a deadly pandemic was completely out of the question.
“I went out once to see my doctor, and it was the first time someone other than my husband or daughter had touched me in a year,” Lawson told me over Zoom in February. She wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact; she was almost cheerful in her delivery, as if she’d long ago made peace with life in isolation—the cadence of her voice was as springy as the red floral pattern on her flowy dress. As we talked, her brown eyes lit up behind her slightly cat-eyed glasses. Occasionally she’d pull a foot up to her desk chair, holding her ankle. For someone who writes so frequently and candidly about social anxiety, she seemed completely at ease.
She’d logged in from the northwest San Antonio home she shares with her husband, whom her readers know by his middle name, Victor, and their teenage daughter, Hailey. I had set up my laptop in Nowhere Bookshop, a store the Lawsons began operating in Alamo Heights in 2019 (the space is still not technically open to the public). Since we had to remain physically apart, I would commune with the author and Twitter sensation from her shop, surrounded by her wares and eclectic decor—think haunted Victorian in a western in the Narnia universe.
The bookstore’s ceilings are lofty; its floors are an ornate, melon-colored Saltillo tile, a relic from the building’s past life as the El Paso Import Company. On the blue-gray walls, Lawson has hung drawings from Alice in Wonderland, work she purchased from a Russian cartoonist on Etsy. The store has a huge children’s section, and there’s just as much shelf space given to genre fiction (horror, sci-fi, mystery, graphic novels) as to highfalutin literature. Animals are everywhere: a big cat sculpture guards the front door, and a South African bontebok head is mounted at the back of the shop. Lawson dressed it in a medieval headband and scarf that she made herself and named it Antelope Boleyn. (Lawson’s father was a taxidermist who collected critters both dead and alive—for a time, the family even had pet raccoons.)
“It has saved my sanity,” Lawson said of running a bookstore in the middle of a plague. The business has survived through curbside pickups, online orders, and a monthly book club, which has drawn 2,700 paid subscribers across the country. And because there are never customers inside the store, it’s been a haven for Lawson. She stops by on Sundays, when the shop is closed and her four employees have the day off. On these visits, Lawson looks through the books, and she might send a note or two to her general manager, Elizabeth Jordan, the former CEO of Austin’s BookPeople. Mostly, she just basks in the bookshop’s ethereal glow.
The store is equal parts silly and macabre, a fitting vibe for an author known for cracking jokes about the darkest and most difficult aspects of her life. Lawson is renowned in part for her zany antics—like when she impulse-bought a five-foot-tall metal chicken sculpture, which she named Beyoncé—but she is just as famous for writing, openly and often, about her physical and mental ailments. She chronicles her depression, avoidant personality disorder, and depersonalization disorder with frankness and humor. “Sprinkled in like paprika over a mentally unbalanced deviled egg,” she’s written, “are things like mild OCD and trichotillomania,” a disorder that can cause Lawson to pull out her own hair. She jokingly refers to herself as “crazy” and “a bit touched”—her grandmother’s parlance.
Lawson’s writing might be described as “Come for the jokes, stay for the inspirational tale of survival in the face of debilitating mental and physical illness, and also more jokes,” and it has earned her a massive, passionate following. She started her writing career as an unpaid blogger for the Houston Chronicle in the mid-aughts, and now her own site, The Bloggess, regularly sees 100,000 visitors a week (a few years ago, when she had time to write more than two weekly posts, her readership typically hit 500,000 a week). Her first book of essays, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, made its debut on the New York Times best-seller list in 2012, and her second book, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, hit the best-seller list in 2015. Her latest book, Broken (In the Best Possible Way), was published in April.
Today, she has nearly half a million Twitter followers; whenever she tweets about a depressive episode and her commitment to surviving it, hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of supportive responses flood her mentions.
Which is why Jenny Lawson hasn’t felt that lonely during a year of being mostly alone. “I’ve had some really low depressions over the past year,” she said. “I’m really lucky that I have an amazing community of people online.” She has her Twitter friends and her bookstore and her book club, the Fantastic Strangelings, which is a source of both social activity (it has a lively Facebook group) and endless entertainment (Lawson reads voraciously before settling on each month’s pick). She’s coping, especially by pandemic standards. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Lawson doesn’t know where her anxiety came from, but it was always there. She had panic attacks as early as day care. Growing up in the small West Texas town of Wall, near San Angelo, Lawson would hide in her wooden toy box in the mornings when it was time to leave, her little legs cramping, her heart pounding in her ears. She could hear her mother calling her name, and she knew she should come out—part of her really wanted to—but she was paralyzed by the fear of everything that could go wrong the minute she left home. She could get lost. Her little sister could run into traffic.
Lawson’s mother eventually coaxed her out of the box and into the car, but she would often have to leave work early to pick up her daughter because she’d been crying so much at day care that she’d made herself throw up. “My mom eventually started putting notes into my pockets and my lunches and notebooks because if I saw the notes, I’d be reminded that everything was okay and that she was still alive,” Lawson recalled.
Lawson had a close relative with severe anxiety who would lock herself in enclosed spaces well into adulthood; her family figured Lawson was the same way. Lawson’s mom told friends and family that her older daughter was “quirky” and had a “nervous stomach.”
Lawson often thinks of her relative, whom she asked not be identified in this story. “She was thirty years older than I was, and her anxiety levels were just crazy,” she said. “When I was growing up, I would always see her, and she would hide in the bathroom and had an eating disorder, and she was just so terrified and unmedicated and, really, at the time, had no idea what it was that was really wrong with her. And she didn’t survive it. I wish I could have done more to help her.”
During Christmases with her extended family, Lawson would hide under the kitchen table. In elementary school, whenever she had to give a presentation in front of the class, she’d get so nervous that she couldn’t speak; instead, she’d laugh hysterically until she was allowed to sit back down. “My fifth grade teacher thought it was hilarious and would bring me up in front of class just to watch me laugh,” Lawson told me. “At the time, I thought she was trying to help me get over it, but, honestly, now it feels a little messed up.”
Making friends was terrifying. It wasn’t that the other children didn’t like her—it was that Lawson was afraid of them, though she didn’t understand exactly why. She used to bring a book with her to the lunchroom, and if anyone acknowledged her, she’d pretend to be so absorbed in what she was reading that she couldn’t hear them.
By the time she started high school, in 1988, Lawson still felt she had very little control over her anxiety, but she’d learned to self-soothe with the things she enjoyed, like Stephen King novels and the TV adaptation of Little House on the Prairie. She began to embrace the parts of herself that felt aberrant. She wore black lipstick and thick eyeliner, turning herself into the only goth kid at her West Texas high school. She even tried to pierce her nose with a fishhook but chickened out and opted for a clip-on instead.
Lawson had also figured out a way to comfortably connect with her peers: writing notes. Passing messages in class and in the hallways was, of course, all the rage back in pre-cellphone times. Lawson excelled in the medium. The physical distance between her and the recipients eased her social anxiety—she could be funny in notes. “That would be how I would communicate with friends,” she recalled, “and then I just generally wouldn’t talk to them much other than that.” (In the aughts, these skills would translate well to Twitter, which is nothing if not a digital version of note-passing.)
She didn’t venture far from home for college, attending Angelo State University, about fifteen minutes from Wall. Lawson was able to continue living at her parents’ house. But she was still anxious and had started trying to manage her emotions in self-destructive ways. “My eating disorder started in college,” she remembered. “As my anxiety got stronger, compulsively counting calories and weighing myself was one of the only ways I felt I had control.”
The anxiety became a little more manageable when, while perusing in a San Angelo bookstore shortly after her twenty-first birthday, Lawson met the man who would become a comic foil in her writing and a lifelong companion: Victor Lawson. He was nothing like her. He was extroverted, confident, and Republican. But he made her laugh, and they fell in love.
Her family was wild about Victor—especially her mother, who saw that Victor had a positive effect on Lawson’s mental health. “About six months after Victor and I had been dating, I came home to find that she’d packed up my stuff and told us both that I should just move in with Victor, since I was ‘obviously already sleeping with him,’ ” Lawson wrote in her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.
The maternal pressure worked. Soon, Lawson and Victor were living together; he proposed not long after that. Lawson wanted to elope (being the center of attention as a bride was a nerve-racking proposition), but Victor’s family wanted a “real wedding.” They compromised with a small ceremony in the chapel of Lawson’s grandparents’ church on July 4, 1996, when they were 22. They’ve now been married for almost 25 years. “I’ve been with Jenny longer than I’ve been without Jenny at this point in my life,” Victor told me. After they married, Victor got an IT job and Lawson worked in HR for a telemarketing company, and eventually they bought a house in San Angelo.
By 2001, they’d moved to Houston and had decided to start a family. Lawson had seen a therapist during college, but he hadn’t given her a clinical diagnosis for her anxiety and angst. That began to change after she started trying to get pregnant. She had three miscarriages. Once, after she and Victor had already told their families about the pregnancy and had started picking out names for the baby, they found out there was no longer a heartbeat. Lawson was devastated. “I numbly followed Victor down the halls,” she would later write in her first book, “and for the first time in my life I seriously considered suicide.” Meandering through the hospital, she found herself wondering if the building was tall enough so that she would die if she jumped from the roof.
Lawson was sent home to naturally miscarry. A month later, still carrying the baby, Lawson had what she described as a nervous breakdown. “My coworkers found me crying hysterically in my office. I didn’t even recognize the sounds as human, and I remember wondering what that horrible noise was, until I realized it was me,” she later wrote. She was diagnosed with PTSD from the event and was put on antidepressants for the first time. Lawson also learned that she had antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause blood clots and can result in miscarriage. To manage the disease, she injected herself with blood thinners in the stomach twice a day. The injections made her belly look like “a patchwork quilt of bruises.”
When Lawson learned she was pregnant again, she was so nervous about losing the baby that she developed obsessive superstitions. She was careful not to schedule doctor’s appointments on the thirteenth day of the month; she refused to even say or write the number thirteen, referring to it as “twelve-B” instead. Once, when she was seven months along, she got stuck in an elevator: she had to go to the thirteenth floor, but she couldn’t bring herself to press the button. Eventually, she would be diagnosed with mild obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, but not until after her daughter was born in 2004. “I was having a really hard time enjoying being a mother because I was constantly terrified that something awful would happen,” Lawson told me. “I got my anxiety disorder diagnosis when Hailey was a few years old.”
Hailey’s early childhood coincided with the heyday of blogging. Lawson had always liked to write, keeping a thorough journal of her most disturbing and hilarious encounters working in HR. She loved reading the Houston Chronicle’s parenting blog, Mama Drama. One day, she saw a farewell post from one of its contributors. “It basically said, ‘I don’t think I can be a good mother and also a blogger, so I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Lawson said. “So I reached out to the editor and told them, ‘Apparently I’m a terrible mother because I’ll do it, and I’ll do it for free.’ ”
Lawson wrote about her experiences with then-toddler Hailey with the same humor she had deployed in folded-up notes to her high school classmates. She told Chronicle readers about the time she accidentally let Hailey use a glue stick as Chapstick and the time her daughter got a progress report from day care noting her weekly activities: “spooning and rubbing.” Lawson’s posts were tongue-in-cheek, with titles like “Crack Is Whack but Cheese Is Fricking Ridonculous” and “Okay, Maybe Your Kids *Are* Better than Mine.” Her irreverent wit, propensity for run-on sentences, and self-deprecation played well in the blogosphere. Eventually, she began making a little money from her writing, and she worked with prominent parenting websites, including CafeMom.
Soon, she started The Bloggess, where she could write about parts of her life that didn’t explicitly have to do with parenting. She was more herself on her own platform, able to write things that were too inappropriate for most journalistic outlets. “I think my first post was just the word ‘F—,’ ” she said. (It was “F—ing Shit, We’re in Business.”)
She enjoyed blogging, but she often felt inauthentic. In 2006, early in her tenure with the Chronicle, Lawson had written a post, titled simply “Call Me Crazy,” in which she detailed her diagnoses: the post-traumatic stress disorder that had walloped her after her miscarriages, the generalized anxiety, and the mild OCD. “I do worry that people will judge me when they find out that I have an anxiety disorder,” she wrote, and after that piece, Lawson tried hard not to overdo it with heavy subject matter. She’d write lighthearted posts in advance to publish during periods when she struggled with anxiety or depression and didn’t feel she could perform. “I’d get comments and people would be like, ‘You’re so funny,’ and inside I’d be thinking, ‘I feel nothing,’ ” Lawson recalled. “The cognitive dissonance really made it worse.”
So she decided to be more transparent. In January 2008, she published a Bloggess post about panic attacks. “I was starting to think that maybe I didn’t need the drugs for my anxiety disorder but it turns out that within a few weeks of being drug-free all the panicky OCD crap has returned,” Lawson wrote. “Even the math dreams are back. Every time I close my eyes I’m slaving over impossible algebra problems. Stuff like ‘What is red + blue?’ and I know you’re thinking ‘Easy, dumbass. It’s purple’ but no, it’s 8 and you have to show your math.”
Putting light spins on heavy issues would become a through line in her work. The comments on the post were largely positive, but Lawson still felt sheepish writing about serious subjects. But the following year, Lawson published another post, titled “One Day I Will Be Normal,” in which she was similarly forthcoming about her depression. She detailed the feeling of being “in the hole” and described how sometimes when she enters a depressive episode, she loses her peripheral vision. “I live through it, knowing that any day the darkness will dissipate and I’ll crawl out of the hole, with no memory of what caused the episode,” she wrote.
Still nervous about alienating her readers, Lawson attached a disclaimer to the top of the post. “This is utterly unlike me,” she wrote, “and if it’s the first time you’ve come here you should skip this whole post and go read this one about how the GPS lady is trying to murder me,” she suggested, with a link to the breezier piece. “I just needed to get this off my chest tonight for me and for everyone else who suffers from this. I’ll be back to normal tomorrow.”
The response to the post was not what Lawson expected. “What was
really shocking is not only that there were so many people who said, ‘Me too, I also have depression, I also have anxiety,’ ” she told me. “But after that, I started getting a lot of people who would reach out and say they were in the process of planning their suicide and they didn’t—not because of what I wrote but because they saw people in the comments saying, ‘Oh, me too.’ ”
Lawson realized readers could get just as much from the serious posts as from the irreverent ones. Like her, they needed to be able to acknowledge their pain, and laugh in spite of it.
One day this past February, Lawson encouraged her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to introduce themselves to one another in the replies. “If you feel alone or want to reach out to others let’s use this thread to find each other,” she posted.
There were hundreds of responses. “Your first book [reached me] during a very dark time, and I felt like in those moments you really were my friend,” wrote one follower. Some shared selfies they’d taken with their pets and talked about everything from their favorite craft projects to their obsession with British TV. Many posted about their struggles with unemployment, loneliness, and fear during the pandemic. Several users connected over having recently lost loved ones to COVID-19. (“I have many shoulders if you need one to lean on,” one wrote to another.) One follower wrote about feeling increasingly disconnected from the people in her life. “I know this feeling will pass, but I’m having a hard time navigating the quiet place in my head,” she wrote. “This is a really good way to reconnect,” responded another.
There is almost nothing more comforting to a person struggling with mental illness than to hear somebody else talk about living with and surviving their own. Despite the fact that nearly one in five American adults lives with mental illness, it is inherently alienating, especially in a pandemic. To read about someone else’s pain and see your own experience mirrored in it can provide instant affinity. Any evidence that contradicts the internal narrative that you are all alone—anything that gives you hope that you won’t always feel as bad as you do right now—is invaluable.
This cathartic give-and-take fuels Lawson’s fandom. Her followers call themselves “the Bloggess tribe,” but Lawson will be the first to say that her massive, super-engaged readership isn’t really something she can take credit for. “I feel that the community has outgrown me,” she told me. They find one another outside comments now, using specific hashtags like #DepressionLies and #SilverRibbons, which is a reference to an oft-quoted line in Lawson’s second book, Furiously Happy: “I hope to one day see a sea of people all wearing silver ribbons as a sign that they understand the secret battle.”
The Bloggess tribe also makes Pinterest boards and Facebook groups in Lawson’s name, in which followers post cat memes and give one another pep talks when someone needs cheering up. “PTSD triggered because people can’t drive. Gimme things that will make me laugh or restore my faith in humanity,” read one post. “What is it like to start over in a new place? . . . I am scared. I am introverted and I only have a few close friends,” read another, written by a woman who was contemplating a big move after a divorce from her husband of 32 years. One member shared a meme that featured the words “Your Value Doesn’t Decrease Based on Someone’s Inability to See Your Worth” atop a black-and-white photo of tranquility icon Keanu Reeves.
Lawson has turned to these communities herself in her darkest hours—sometimes her literal darkest hours, in the middle of the night, when she’s suffering from insomnia and her brain is telling her that there is something deeply wrong with her, and she’ll never fix it, and it’s only going to bring everybody around her down. It doesn’t matter how many emotional dips Lawson experiences. “With depression,” she said, “every time, I think, ‘I know depression, I’ve lived with it forever, I recognize it when it comes.’ ” But still, she’ll find herself struggling four days into a depressive episode, wondering what is wrong with her and why she is so worthless.
In 2018 the persistence of these episodes inspired Lawson to try repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, a treatment that uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate the parts of the brain that slow down during a depression. Lawson chronicled the experience with her trademark repartee in her latest book, Broken: “It . . . feels like a woodpecker is drilling into your skull for forty minutes a day for six to eight weeks,” she wrote. But the woodpecker did its job. Afterward, Lawson felt better than she had in a while. She even went to Europe with Victor and Hailey.
TMS provided Lawson a much-needed reprieve from her depression and anxiety (or, as she wrote, a “borrowed half year where I came back to life”), but the lows eventually returned. Her autoimmune disorders put her at particular risk during the pandemic, so she hasn’t been able to get additional TMS treatments; she’s had to find other ways to cope. Those are the times she feels luckiest to have the social scaffolding she has built around herself, especially when she thinks about her anxious relative, who did not have access to similar tools. “Every time I start to feel myself falling and getting really reclusive—like, even before COVID-19—not wanting to leave my house for weeks at a time, I remind myself of her and I remind myself that I don’t want to be trapped in a bathroom for my life,” she said. “So I reach out, and there’s something about the relative safety of the internet that makes it so much easier in some ways.”
What with all the trolls (and the unrealistic body standards, and our tendency to share only the most edited versions of ourselves on social media), the internet and the anonymity it provides can seem inherently terrible for our mental health. But for someone who experiences depression and anxiety and who might already feel quite alienated, the internet can also be lifesaving. “I feel really lucky that I have this amazing community of people, because I don’t have a whole lot of in-person friends,” Lawson said. “I typically talk to a friend of mine on the phone maybe once every three or four weeks. I like to text . . . If I hadn’t found an online community and the ability to write to get out the things that trouble me, I suspect I would be extremely reclusive. I think possibly I might not be alive.”
She hopes that Nowhere Bookshop will become an in-person hub for others seeking community in the post-pandemic world. She and Victor installed a bar in the back where they plan to sell coffee, booze, and food, providing a space where customers feel welcome to hang out even if they aren’t buying books. She looks forward to that time, though the idea of a big, flashy celebration for the store’s official opening makes her nervous.
“Maybe instead of a grand opening, we’ll have a series of bland openings, once a month,” Lawson told me over Zoom while I sat at the bar. “I don’t like the idea of a grand opening. I wouldn’t want to go to it. It sounds like there would be a lot of people.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “This Too Shall Pass.” Subscribe today.